This guest blog from Charlotte Calkin, Director of Restorative Engagement Forum, and Dr Lucy Willmott, from Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge, summarises an evaluation of a relationship skills training model based on restorative practice principles that has been piloted at HMP Warren Hill.
It has long been recognised that positive relationships are at the heart of prison life. Good relationships between staff and prisoners can be pivotal, and prisoners’ relationships with their families and other significant people in their lives can be the social bond that supports reintegration on release.
Restorative practice is a term used to describe the holistic application of restorative justice principles, that look beyond the traditional victim-perpetrator dialogue to a wider use of restorative questions. It brings a problem-focused, non-blaming, and non-shaming approach to everyday communication.
A new Relationship Skills Training (ReSeT) course has been designed to combine the pivotal nature of staff-prisoner relationships with restorative practice principles. It uses proactive and reactive restorative practice techniques in a multi-media, multi-disciplinary package to train prison officer key workers. Who then, in turn, train residents in relationship skills that can be used both in prison and with prisoners’ families.
The ReSeT course encourages the use of restorative ways of communicating in every situation and conversation, even conversations with ourselves. The skills that are taught in ReSeT are those that would best be taught in schools, but predominantly in the UK, they are not. ReSeT offers basic skills for better conversations, managing conflict, and expressing ourselves effectively. The skills are applicable to everyone working or residing in prisons and everyone within the prison is invited to participate. Restorative practice is a field far bigger than restorative justice – the process of facilitating positive dialogue between people who have experienced harmful behaviour, and the individual(s) who have determined that experience. Rather, restorative practice is building positive dialogue in any situation.
The course has been explicitly designed for a young population in prison, however, the aims and approach, as well as the restorative practice content is transferrable to other criminal justice and non-criminal justice populations. The proactive six-week ReSeT course has had a process evaluation carried out. A full copy of the evaluation is available here.
Process evaluation methodology
The process evaluation was designed to test the vigor of the model. This involved testing the integrity of the stated aims, alongside whether the approach and content of ReSeT were maintained when it was delivered and designed (in part by key workers), as well as asking what aspects of the model worked best, identifying areas for improvement and any contextual issues. Course integrity is essential to course efficacy and therefore must be determined prior to or in tandem with any measurement of effectiveness and outcomes. Those delivering the course are pivotal to course integrity, so a key focus of the evaluation is the role that key worker prison officers play in the course.
A mixed methods design was taken to triangulate the views of staff and residents involved in the training. The set used was chosen across the first three cohorts of residents at HMP Warren Hill, an adult establishment, with a long term, complex population, supportive of restorative practice principles. The multi-disciplinary design was widely welcomed with specific support for an external, restorative practice expert, lived experience involvement and key workers involvement. The latter enabled a joint learning experience and opportunities to practice, that had the potential to facilitate the ‘right’ staff-prisoner relationships.
Overall, the course received significant positive feedback from all residents, key workers, and managers, despite the perceived overlap of some aspects of the course with other interventions, and some challenges with one-to-one key worker session delivery. For some it was perceived to be the course that could make the difference. The restorative content was very well received, with clear feedback on how to adapt examples and presentation to an adult population.
It was beyond the scope of the evaluation process to consider the efficacy of the course, however, some triangulated reports of behavioral changes from staff and residents were very positive. Alongside this attendance at individual sessions or completion of course material was not closely monitored. This was potentially due to a lack of clarity from ReSeT around booklet completion which failed to meet the restorative principle of fair process. When recruitment was perceived to be voluntary this facilitated participation and engagement. All other restorative principles of; giving voice, sharing accountability, using restorative questions, and working with people successfully ran through the course aims. Whilst the content and approach were widely demonstrated by both residents and keyworkers.
We recognise there are no ‘silver bullets’, a six-week course cannot transform someone. However, ReSeT through restorative practice is designed to provide a simple toolkit, encouraging practice with peers, officers and loved ones. This process evaluation therefore identified examples of how ReSet has made a difference to relationships, illustrating that it is possible to teach skills to assist in the formation and development of them. Further research is needed to see how these match Liebling’s ‘right’ relationships, however, our principles of restorative practice appear to map closely to some of the skills required. This process evaluation demonstrates ReSeT has the potential to support residents, in prison and the community, and officers, where the ‘highly skilled’ relational nature of the work is widely recognised but not part of the training.
There are clear next steps in terms of addressing recommendations to improve the booklets and films and identify other ways in which the course can be delivered to meet the needs of any establishment. These changes in the delivery of the model can include the option of handing over the facilitation of the weekly group circle meetings to an internally trained restorative practice facilitator and the inclusion of peer mentoring, these changes will all require close evaluation. Further research is needed in terms of a full outcome evaluation, including engagement with families to understand if and how ReSeT can, and is, making a difference in communication with loved ones and significant others.
Therefore, as a pathway forward and with our learnings we are:
- Developing ways of utilising the existing structures in prison to support everyone having access to ReSeT.
- Developing a peer mentor scheme so that residents can support each other through the course.
- Training residents and officers together to deliver the course and the work
working with family engagement workers in prisons enabling the facilitation of conversations between loved ones at the end of the course, if there is a request by either party and it is risk-assessed to be safe.
- Producing additional films with Peter Woolf, one of our favourite restorative champions, so that there is a broad range of lived experience in the films. This makes the course (and the films) more accessible to everyone within the secure estate.
- Finally, we are developing a website to host these learnings and materials, so that the work can also be accessed online by probation and youth offending officers.
Notably, feedback from officers has been positive including: “This should be taught as part of the officer training, it’s really important.” Prisons, like any organisation, are shaped by a culture enabled by those who are leading, more than by the demographics of the organisation, pupils or prisoners. The unconsciously practiced “it starts with me” mentality and the problem with many organisations remains that everyone is expecting everyone else to fix their problems. Hence why it is advantageous that everyone has access to the ReSeT course. Urgently, the programme needs to become accredited so that it can be offered in every prison. ReSeT being offered as part of POELT (Prison Officer Entry Level Training) and gaining course accreditation would therefore be our goals and support Liebling’s right relationships.
ReSeT was designed by a range of experts including a forensic psychologist, a teacher, a criminologist, restorative practitioners, people with lived experience, facilitators, and designers. The evaluation clearly shows the benefits of the work. However, the model of delivery needs tweaking in prisons and we believe that engaging the residents as peer mentors, and family engagement workers, will provide the infrastructure that ReSeT needs. The subsequent process in this work is evaluating a route forward and defining the next steps.
The ReSeT model has been delivered by the Restorative Engagement Forum, with the support and funding from Porticus as part of the Positive Pathways from Prison programme